The Dowser

by Colin Barrett

Tags: Fiction,

Desc: : The ancient art of dowsing is mainly used to find water, but sometimes it works for other things, too.

"Dowsing?"

For a cop, Jack Parker could pack a lot of expression into one word. The expression he packed into this one was about what a mother might use upon discovering her five-year-old's collection of live worms in her best crystal bowl. The look he gave me to accompany it was one she might have bestowed on the worms.

Oh, well; we live in skeptical times. My card—"Carlton Sumner, Dowser Extraordinaire, Lost Valuables a Specialty"—tended to evoke that kind of reaction from all those people so pompously certain of their own ability to distinguish between hawks and handsaws, which is to say nearly everyone. I hated it, but I was used to it. Anyhow, this job was pre-sold, or at least I hoped it was, and I could let someone else carry the ball for once.

"What do we have to lose?" Monaghan asked reasonably. Not exactly the kind of ringing endorsement my heart of hearts might have wished for, but you settle for what you can get.

"With him?" If possible, Parker's look intensified. I knew the thick glasses didn't help, and the clothes didn't fit all that well and the toupee might have been a little obvious, but I wasn't that bad. I hoped I wasn't, at least. "Come on, Larry, stop wasting my time," Parker continued. "I've got real work to do." He started to turn toward the door.

"Company won't think well of this, Jack," said Monaghan. "Company may be a little slow about paying if we can't get your cooperation. And of course we'd have to tell our policy-holder why, and I'm not sure how that would reflect—"

"You've got to be kidding!" Parker exploded as he spun back around. "A major insurance company is going to refuse to pay off because I won't let somebody wander around holding a forked stick and—"

"Glass rod," I said.

"What?"

"Glass rod," I repeated clearly. "I use a glass rod. The forked willow branches are good if you're looking for water, but—"

"Right. Fine. Who the hell cares? Larry, are you telling me you'll welsh on a policy unless I let this asshole wave his"—glaring at me—"glass rod around like some kind of fairy godfather?" I glared back at him; I may be small, but I'm not effeminate. But he was through looking at me for the moment, and my glare caught only his ear.

"'Welsh' is a little strong," said Monaghan reprovingly. "I'm simply saying your department has promised cooperation, and we might consider your refusal on this to be uncooperative."

"I have a proven record..." I started, but Monaghan waved me quiet.

"He does have a track record, Jack, I've checked it. I'm not saying I believe in this dowsing for valuables, maybe he's just been lucky, but couldn't we use some luck? Besides, as I said, what do we have to lose?" That was basically the way he'd bought the arguments I'd given him, and I was getting happier by the moment that I'd gone to the insurance company first, but we still had to get past the local cops if I was going to get the access I needed.

Parker just shook his head.

"Jack, somewhere out in that field there's nearly a million dollars worth of gems. If you hadn't shot that boy too dead to tell us—"

"When you're in a fire fight you tend to think more about staying alive than finding stolen goods," said Parker. Well, I supposed so, but some of the 'papers had hinted that Parker was a little trigger-happy. Why would you bury stolen jewels unless you had plans to use them as bargaining chips, and if you had that kind of plans why start shooting? That was a big reason why I'd gone to the insurance company; a cop who thought with his gun hadn't seemed like the kind who'd be receptive to my sort of proposition.

"Mm," said Monaghan noncommittally. He shrugged delicately. "In any case, the one person who knew where the gems are is no longer in a position to tell us. The soil samples narrow us down to the one field in the area where soybeans were harvested last fall, but that's as far as we can get that way, and all our searches so far have turned up bupkes. Not a single stone."

"What more do you want?" demanded Parker. "If he'd taken even a few settings we could have found it with metal detectors, but not our boy. As it is, I even got the field plowed up again, but I guess he went deeper than the plow. Or else it's not there at all, and he stashed it somewhere else."

"Where?" asked Monaghan. "You were on his heels minutes after he'd left the jewelry store. You found the car a quarter mile away. You caught up with him in the woods only another quarter mile off. There's the dirt on his shoes, and a shovel with his prints on it with the same dirt. When it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, I tend to think it actually is a duck."

"Okay, so they're there," Parker said. "But—"

"And, " Monaghan went on, "my company thinks poorly indeed of paying a claim on unidentifiable gems that may later inexplicably materialize in someone else's hands, especially when we haven't had the full cooperation of local authorities in attempting to locate them."

That one startled me a bit, and apparently Parker heard it the same way I had; he was turning red. "If you're trying to say something," he said harshly, "say it out."

Monaghan shook his head impatiently. "No, of course not," he said. "Do you think I'd have let matters go even this far if I seriously questioned your integrity?" He let that sink in a moment, and some of the tension left Parker's body. "I make that point," he continued, "only to indicate a possible construction that might, I merely say might, be placed on your failure to cooperate in exploring all possible avenues to recovery of these stones." And he looked at me.

So did Parker, hard; I clearly hadn't graduated from wormhood. I watched the mental wheels churning, and anticipated the question I knew was coming.

"Nothing," I said.

"What?"

"Nothing, that's what I get out of it," I told him. "Not even expenses, nothing. Unless I find them—then I get ten percent." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Monaghan nodding with self-satisfaction; even after I'd given him enough bona fides to work up his interest, he'd refused to back me unless I agreed to that percentage. I knew perfectly well it was a lot less than insurance companies often gave—less by a long shot, for example, than his company would have been willing to pay the thief himself if he'd got away and offered to sell the stones back. It rankled, but then nobody ever said life was always fair.

"And I'll find them," I added. "If they're there."

"Yuh," said Parker dismissively. He looked at Monaghan again; if the insurance investigator was going to push this hard he was stuck and he knew it, but he still didn't like it. "Christ," he said to neither of us particularly. "Dowsing."

"When you have a difficult case," I asked him, "don't you generally check out all information, even anonymous tips?"

"That's not the same thing," he said.

"If I went out to that field today, unknown to you, and used my talent to locate these stones, and telephoned anonymously to tell you where they are, wouldn't you dig there—just to be sure?"

"Then why don't you go do just that?" he said rudely.

"First, because you have the field fenced off and under guard," I said. "That can't last forever, but even then neither your department nor the owner of the field are likely to look kindly on unsanctioned searchers wandering, as I must do, for hours on end. Second, no reward has yet been publicly offered, and none may ever be. As a professional, I feel I'm entitled to compensation—"

"A professional!" he sneered. "Professional what?

"Professional dowser," I said firmly, carefully not mentioning that it was a profession that occupied a great deal less than my full time and brought in, regrettably, a great deal less than the full measure of income I required to keep eating. "And third," I continued, following the thought, "if and when I succeed, I'd like that success known. I want publicity, in other words, and the credibility that would be associated with having done work for a major insurance company and reputable law-enforcement authorities. As I said, I've had my successes, but they've been insufficiently publicized—"

"OK, you'll get your publicity," said Parker flatly. "You'll get it now. Not just if you get blind lucky and find the stuff, but now, before you start, so whatever happens gets publicized. You fall on your face, bud, you do it right out in front of God and everybody. And that's the only way it'll be. Okay with you?"

That wasn't what I'd had in mind at all. But I was boxed; if I backed away I'd lose Monaghan. What the hell, it was still the biggest chance I'd likely ever get. "Yes," I said with as little hesitation as I could manage.

"Larry?" he asked.

"Of course, it will have to be understood that my company is in no way sponsoring Mr. Sumner, or endorsing his, er, abilities," said Monaghan smoothly. "But with that postulate, I think we would have no objection."

Parker showed a lot more teeth than I cared to see as he grinned.


It wasn't a circus. The local media were the only ones interested enough to show up, and their people tended to come and go a lot. Then there were some gawkers, enough to make me wish idly that I had the hot dog concession until I noticed that some entrepreneur had set up just that on the tailgate of his pickup. But not a circus.

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